Friday, 18 March 2011

Hong Kong, Part One, Arrival and Reunion with an Old Friend

I was never so happy to leave a place as I was Shenzhen. I stayed there for four nights and couldn't wait to move on. The hostel I was staying in was pleasant, in a nice place in outskirts of the city but nothing was happening, nobody in the hostel was that sociable and I only met two people, a Chinese student who was in the city for an interview and a Spaniard who was also looking for a job. Whilst talking with the Chinese man in the dormitory, he brought up the question of Taiwan and asked me what I thought of it and if I thought it was part of China or not. I told him what I thought, that Taiwan is its own country, that mad him mad and he raised his voice and forcefully stated that it was. 

Hong Kong and Kowloon Peninsula in the distance
On the morning of 18 January, I leisurely got up, had a noodle breakfast and headed into Hong Kong. Crossing the border from Shenzhen is extremely easy and cheap. The Shenzhen metro takes you directly to the border crossing where you get off the train and go through the usual immigration routine. The queue was long and took forever to process. As soon as I stepped into Hong Kong I felt a wave of excitement pass through me and felt as though I had arrived back in the west for some respite. I excitedly jumped onto their MTR system and headed for Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island. This is the sixth country of my journey. As soon as I stepped out of Causeway Bay station, I was struck by a strong sense of Reverse Culture Shock. I was immediately shocked by the distinct differences between Honk Kong and mainland China. For instance, they drive on the correct side of the road, the streets are immaculate and most importantly people do not spit! I would like to think it is the influence the British Empire had on the peninsula.

Hong Kong from Kowloon in 1843

The British Empire gained control of Hong Kong Island after the First Opium War (1839-42) against the Qing Dynasty. The war came about after the Emperor of China banned the trade of Opium as more and more citizens were becoming addicted to the drug and he ordered all opium to be destroyed, including opium owned by the British. The British Empire believed the ban was unfair as it broke free trade with China which meant a loss of money, so they simply declared war. The outlying islands and New Territories were gained after the conclusion of the Second Opium War under an agreement which loaned them to the British for 99 years.  

Handover Ceremony 30/6/97 - 1/7/97
As per the agreement Great Britain returned the outlying islands and New Territories back to China in July 1997. In addition to that, Hong Kong island was also returned to them under the condition that China allowed the region to run their own government and economy for at least fifty years. China calls it 'One Country, Two Systems' and has classified Hong Kong as a 'Special Administrative Region'. Seeing how Hong Kong's social and political stances remain quite different to China, I really cannot believe that the region can ever fully reintegrate back into China. The freedom people have and their standard of living is far greater than that on the mainland. I believe sincere changes to the political/economic systems and citizens' freedom of speech will have to be made in the People's Republic to bring them in line with Hong Kong before anybody in Hong Kong would allow the merger to happen.

Hong Kong By Night
After checking into the hostel and meeting the charmless but oddly friendly owner Sam, I headed out to look at the cheap electronic malls which Hong Kong has been synonymous with for many years. Since I had suffered the devastating death of my compact digital camera whilst smashing icicles on the shore of Lake Baikal, I was looking forward to buying myself a new one for a very affordable price. However, after looking round several electronic centres that resemble multi story rabbit runs that are extremely difficult to navigate as bright lights, loud noises and a forest of people disorientate you, I discovered that since the dramatic fall of the Pound the prices of electronics are near enough the same as European prices. I was thoroughly disappointed as my dreams of cheap electronics were shot down and buried. On my walk back to the hostel I failed to notice that night had fallen as the bright lights of Hong Kong fill the pavements and roads making night time unnoticeable unless you look upwards towards the sky. That is the magic of Hong Kong, being able to walk around the bustling streets at 10pm and believe it's midday.

A rare bird of some sort...
Although Hong Kong's metropolis is one of the most densely populated area in the world, the remaining part of the island has been untouched and is covered in thick forests. Unfortunately I didn't have enough time to fully explore the entire island but I was able to walk out of the city centre helped by the Mid Levels Escalator which is the World's Longest Escalator that takes you up above the buildings where I walked through Hong Kong Park which has the Aviary. The park and aviary was truly a paradise within a city with exotic plants and colourful birds flying around your head. Sometimes the birds flew a little too close for comfort as they skim your head and force you to duck and dive in avoidance.  

Hong Kong Park
I walked slowly through the small sanctuary and left the other sideback out into Hong Kong Park, where I wandered for a while longer in the sun. It was a welcome respite from the city noise and crowds of people which I had become accustomed to every since leaving the Yangtze River and it becomes extremely exhausting. As I left the park and made my way back down towards the city, I came upon the tram which transports you up to Victoria Peak. I stood at the tram stop halfway up and procrastinated for a while whether I should go up or wait for another day. I decided not to so headed down the hill and back to the hostel.

As Hong Kong's main settlement is split between Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon peninsula, I thought it would be a great idea to head across the river and check it out. I got the MTR over and walked around the area and didn't really find much excitement, just lots of shops, restaurants and tailors. I walked to the Golden Computer market which is the most famous of all the cheap electronic places but was again disappointed with the prices. I walked back towards Victoria Harbour as I wanted to see the 'Symphony of Lights' which is the world's largest permanent light and sound show which illuminates Honk Kong every night and can be seen from the Avenue of the Stars on the Kowloon side. However, I turned up far too early and it was far too cool in the evening to wait around for forty five minutes for the show to begin, so I made my way to the ferry terminal which would take me back across to Central. On my way to the ferry I headed into the Hong Kong's
Hong Kong Centre for Performing Arts
Centre for Performing Arts, unluckily they wouldn't allow me into the space to have a look or take me on a tour as there was a performance on and there were no tickets left either. Having failed with the theatre, I walked out and headed over to catch the ferry. I stepped onto the boat and immediately felt a little nauseous as the boat moved around like violently in the harbour. As soon as we moved off into the open water we levelled off and I got the most amazing view of Hong Kong skyline shining out into the darkness and reflecting off the waves breaking against the boat.

I woke up early and had a few hours to kill before I had to get on the bus to the airport to collect Matt who was coming out to travel South East China with me for a few weeks before heading back to work. I used my time wisely by heading into Victoria Park that is in Causeway Bay very close to my hostel and the bus stop. Unfortunately the clouds had enveloped the sky making the sun invisible to the eye and the air chilly on the skin. I walked into the park and found the boating lake where two men were racing their remote controlled powerboats around in a circle creating waves of water spraying out over passers by. I'm sure they were competing on who could soak and onlooker more, not who was fastest. I found a bench further into the park where I sat down and retrieved the super glue from my bag which I needed to glue together the strap on my watch which had come apart. I could have easily gone across to Kowloon and bought a watch from one of those dodgy middle eastern men that come up to you and offer you watches under their breath but I can't be bothered with all of that and anyway, I like the watch I have and know that it works. I finished glueing together the strap and my fingers along with it and got stuck into my book for a while.

A few hours later, I was sailing through the centre of Hong Kong on the double decker bus bound for Hong Kong Airport which is on Lantau Island. Although the bus journey takes around an hour to reach the airport, it's a rewarding route as you get to see Hong Kong and it's untouched beautiful lush countryside. On my way to the airport the automated system on the bus kept reminding me that I needed to check which airport terminal I needed to get off at. I had no idea, so I flipped a coin and hopped that Matt would arrive at Terminal 1. I arrived in the terminal building and headed straight to the arrivals board to check the status of the flight. I discovered that I had arrived just two minutes before it was due to land so I figured that I would have around twenty minutes before Matt would walk through to the arrivals hall which gave me a few minutes to spare having a look around the few shops there.

Flash back to the beginning... Nov '10
The last time I saw Matt was in Estonia as he was sitting in a taxi heading out through the snow covered streets of Tallinn to the airport. Now two months later, I am meeting him after travel around half the world by train, bus and boat in a very different place to Eastern Europe. I seemed to have been waiting at the arrivals gate for a long time, I kept checking the board and the status went from 'landed' to 'taxiing' to 'at gate' and people started flooding through the gate, Matt was not one of them. As I waited, I thought to myself Matt would have either made a friend on the flight, an enemy or a friend who turned into an enemy because that's just the way he is. He finally appeared alone after an ordeal with immigration because of his Seaman Card and having to convince them he was not there for work and that he was flying out. It was strange to see a familiar face from home after travelling Eurasia meeting so many strangers along the way. As we headed back to Causeway Bay on the bus, darkness had fallen and we caught up on everything that had happened since we last met. The internet, however, does wonders in keeping people updated that there wasn't much to tell. As we were talking we were told off by the man in front of us who said we were being too loud. Another difference between Hong Kong and China, you can be too loud. Usually it's the Chinese who are shouting as loud as they can at each other and down the phone. We arrived back in Causeway bay early evening and Matt checked into the hostel.

Next Time: A big Buddha and Dim Sum!

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